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Eliot Spitzer, New York's man of mystery


In his bid to gain some traction, Tom Suozzi has had a lot to say about Eliot Spitzer.

That's only natural. Negative campaigning is the territory of the underdog, and in the Democratic gubernatorial primary Suozzi is certainly that. Most recent polls give Spitzer a lead of about 60 percentage points over Suozzi or John Faso, the Republican nominee. And to be fair, Suozzi's negative campaigning is tame compared to most.

But what Suozzi's campaign lacks in harshness, it makes up in volume. This headline from a June 21 press release is typical: "AS LEGISLATIVE SESSION WINDS DOWN, SPITZER'S ALBANY INSIDER ALL-STARS BLOCK REFORM: Call Them the 'No Can Do Duo' --- Spitzer Does Nothing as Partner Silver Shoots Down the AG's So-Called Reform Agenda."

Nearly all such Suozzi releases have one thing in common: they take Spitzer's office in state government and his powerful supporters as evidence that he's opposed to meaningful reform. Speaking outside the Democratic Party's state convention in Buffalo in May, Suozzi called Spitzer "the general of the armies of the status quo."

Although Suozzi's rhetoric may tend toward hyperbole, the question he's raising may be the most important one in a race that's been dubbed a coronation from the beginning. Given the support he has within the establishment, will Spitzer really be able to make the dramatic reforms the state needs?

Spitzer's backers say he's amassing massive amounts of political capital so he can do just that. Detractors like Suozzi --- and Faso, to a lesser extent --- say that's little more than an excuse to continue courting the status quo.

But there are signs that Spitzer may be preparing to undermine the wishes of some of his supporters. Earlier this year, he accepted the endorsement of the Working Families Party. Then he promptly opposed two of the party's top legislative priorities: a bill giving day-care workers the right to unionize, and one requiring large companies to provide health insurance (one of the so-called "Wal-Mart bills").

But if those stances helped his image as a maverick willing to betray campaign allies, an incident last week made things murkier. At a press conference where he picked up the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, reporters pressed Spitzer to state his position on the Wicks Law (something his rivals have already done). The Wicks Law mandates multiple contractors, rather than a single one, for public projects costing more than $50,000. Labor loves it; local governments hate it.

The Albany Times-Union's Elizabeth Benjamin chronicled this exchange between Spitzer and a frustrated Tom Precious, the statehouse reporter for the Buffalo News: "Eliot, are you saying you don't know if the Wicks Law should be changed?"

"No. I said I wouldn't tell you," Spitzer replied. "I can't tell you that."

Then he offered a longer, more convoluted evasion: "There are decisions that you make about policy shifts that do not and should not be announced immediately because it will have an impact upon the ability to effectuate policy shifts that you need."

"There is a degree to which you decide in a strategic sense where you want to end up, how you're going to get there, when you articulate with greater precision or lesser precision precisely what the policy should be," he said, according to the TU report.

Then, as if in reassurance, he added: "There has been, throughout my campaign, no shortage of specificity across the board on the range of issues that we need to deal with, and there will be no lack of specificity at the right moment on every one of these issues."

That's more than a bit reminiscent of his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Buffalo, with its refrain, "Day one of a Spitzer administration, everything changes."

That speech was one of the first times Spitzer hinted publicly that allies of Eliot the candidate might like Eliot the governor a little bit less. One of his implied targets in that speech, was Sheldon Silver, speaker of the state Assembly. Spitzer didn't mention Silver specifically, and the two appear together publicly from time to time. Yet Silver's authority rests on his caucus's stranglehold of the Assembly. That stranglehold in turn rests, at least in part, on redistricting practices that ensure noncompetitive races. In his speech, Spitzer vowed to curb such practices.

At that time, party activists with ties to the campaign told City Newspaper on background that Spitzer planned to quietly accept what support he could, then use that support to crack heads in Albany, once he became governor. That squares with what Spitzer told reporters last week. There's just one problem: without a position or campaign promise, there's nothing to hold Spitzer accountable to once he's elected. You either trust him or you don't.

Or as one of those anonymous backers told City: "Sometimes you've got to go on blind faith."